Stories: Life, the Universe and Cancerous Things

This is the story of my cancer journey – 12 years ago now. It was early February that I found a lump in my left breast, just starting at a new school, just moved into my new lovely house on the Tamar River. Oh, my was it a tumultuous year. This story won an ABC Short Story prize and appears on their web-site somewhere!! Enjoy.

Life Happens

Life, the Universe and Cancerous Things

I am 42, which according to Douglas Adams in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the answer to the question about the meaning of life. In my case the answer is cancer. Breast cancer and I have a feeling that Adams might just approve of such an answer were he still alive to hear it.

I am slightly younger than the average age for this encounter, but not uniquely so. Every day someone is diagnosed with cancer. Every day someone dies from it. Recent statistics have us all lasting a lot longer. Early detection is the key to survival, as is treatment. There are still those of us living in denial who, on finding a lump ignore it, hoping it will go away. I met such a lady during treatment. She ignored her lump: now it is huge and the cancer has spread throughout her body. Why did she ignore it? She doesn’t know.

I found my lump during dinner one Saturday evening in February. A slight pain near my left nipple and in rubbing it better I found it. My lump. Not small, not indistinct – clearly something that shouldn’t be there. I felt sick, worried all weekend and rang my doctor on Monday. How long had it been there? Had I been ignoring this, not examining my breasts regularly or carefully? But I was sure it was new, that it hadn’t been there in December.

Time then did strange things, as it has been doing ever since. My GP moved quickly, ordering scans, biopsies: an appointment with the specialist. Onto the cancer roller coaster I stepped, taking my family with me. Once malignancy was established the choices narrowed. It had to go. How much breast was to go with it? As it turns out over a third has gone and I have a seven inch scar from left to right, making me look something like a cream bun on the left and a normal round full jam donut on the right. It is not a pretty picture in the bathroom mirror.

Chemotherapy followed surgery. A decent interval apart. In fact it seemed too long at the time. I just wanted it to be over. All treatment completed and behind me so I knew what was to happen for the rest of my life and then get on with it.

Don’t let anyone lie to you: chemotherapy is hideous. It makes your hair fall out, your skin reacts, you ache all over, you’re constantly tired, you feel nauseous, constipated, or the other extreme and your predilection for infection rises dramatically. Yes, chemotherapy can kill you.

Six treatments were set at two weeks apart. During the course of treatment I contracted two chest infections, my veins collapsed and I had to have a transfuser port inserted into my chest. Some days I felt so bad I thought that to die might be easier. Chemotherapy is a blunt instrument and it amazes me in this age of medical advancement and miracles that a regime, which seems to just kill everything indiscriminately in its path, is so commonly used. Is in fact, integral to successful treatment.

Radiation on the other hand is refined and specifically targeted. I am measured up, tattooed and then zapped every day for six weeks. Some discomfort, on-going fatigue, but nowhere near the trauma of chemotherapy.

I am nearly through the initial cancer woods. Drug therapy and follow up checks and tests with my doctor’s lay ahead. Is the cancer through my system? Has it spread from the breast through the lymph nodes to other vulnerable parts? I won’t know for some time. Five years they say until the “all clear”. And then the numbers are on my side.

Douglas Adams made it to 49, perhaps that was his answer to the question of life, the universe and everything? I hope my answer is a much bigger number than that.

PS: I remain cancer free, check ups have been all clear since that terrible year.

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